Written by Veterans Magazine
talked to Andreas Kossak, who is a filmmaker, author, member of the CSUSB faculty, and instructor of our screenwriting course.  He mentors our writers group, and helps in publishing our books.

With an ARRI BL 3 in 1988

Written by Veterans: When you say you want to unlock doors, what do you mean?

Andreas Kossak: I grew up during the 1960s in a strictly blue-collar neighborhood in Germany.  The highest aspiration was to find a white-collar job and not have work in the local factory.  Of course, you wouldn't think of going to a university, of leaving your hometown, and certainly never dream of becoming a filmmaker.  Especially the latter was beyond the imagination of my family and friends.  Those doors were locked.

Luckily, I pretty soon realized that if one just tried, these these doors weren't locked at all. And so I left my hometown, my country, settled in the United States, studied, became a filmmaker, a fiction and screenwriter, and even teach at a university.

Opening these doors in my students' minds is very important to me.  It is the first, and perhaps most important step towards a career in writing.  Many of my students come from a background similar to mine, where a career in professional writing is not even considered.  But they have a desire to try; and in my screenwriting course I want to show them that they can do it.   And when my students tell me, that they are thinking of perhaps becoming a professional writer one day, or just pursue it as a hobby, I feel I have given them the key to something very special. 

Making movies with an ARRI BL 3, 1988

WBV: Why did you start the writing program for veterans?

AK: I trust very much when something "feels right."  So, it's hard to give logical reasons. I usually turn the question around and ask myself, why shouldn't I do something?  Then, nearly all arguments against trying to build something new boil down to matters of convenience and that should never be a factor.

Starting the writing program for veterans with the support of Marci Daniels, the Director of CSUSB's Veterans Success Center, and the Department of Communication Studies, felt like the right thing to do. I have always valued working with veterans.  On movie sets I have relied on them, known they would go the extra mile, and was certain they wouldn't lose their cool, even under extreme pressure. They have never let me down. 

A break from bootcamp, front row, sixth from left

There is something to be said about the self-discipline, commitment, dependability, and focus that come with military service. These are all qualities of a good writer.  And so, I felt that if I could offer them a path to telling their stories, it was definitely the right thing to do.

And what better place to do get involved, than at Cal State San Bernardino, which is ranked by the Military Times as #1 in California and # 9 in the nation as "Best for Vets?" 

Last day Bundeswehr - saying 'good bye' to "my truck"

WBV: Did you serve in the military yourself?

AK: Yes, I did. And I was very honored when Marci Daniels of the Veterans Success Center, "adopted" me as a "veteran from a friendly country." That is, because I actually served in the German army in what is now the 1st Panzer Division. Given that I am from Germany, I was especially honored when I was requested to serve on the CSUSB's Student Veterans Success Scholarship Review Committee. There is something universal about the experience of serving one's country in the military, that unites veterans from all countries and I feel very much at home with American veterans.

WBV: After your military service, how did you got involved in filmmaking?
 
AK: I actually wrote my application letters to various film schools, while I was still in the army. The USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles accepted me and I graduated from the Cinema Production Program.

With an ARRI SR II on a Panther-mounted Super Jib

After USC, I quickly started to work professionally as cinematographer, shooting TV spots and music videos.  Two years out of school, I shot my first feature and have been the Director of Photography on about a dozen movies since.  I was also the cinematographer on documentaries, such as the "Sail Away" adventure series for the Discovery Channel, and about 400 other projects.

With the MovieCam "SuperAmerica"

Beside cinematography, I was given the opportunity to produce a variety of programs. First, I acted as a subcontractor, providing logistic services and crews for German TV, as well as a German-produced feature film.

Later, I became the producing partner of Gamma Gulch Productions, LLC, for which I co-wrote and produced the award-winning cult-comedy CYXORK 7, starring Ray Wise. 

WBV: How did you get into teaching screenwriting?

AK: I have written and co-written screenplays, short stories, and a novel, plus I am a member of the Writers Guild of America, West (WGA), but in my professional life was primarily focused on the actual making of movies. 

Then, in 2010, I was given the opportunity to teach a class in screenwriting for the Department of Communication Studies at CSUSB. I was excited to be able to develop the kind of screenwriting course, I wish I could have taken back in film school.  My screenwriting course is project-centered and incorporates insights I gained in over 25 years of professional filmmaking.  The response of my students over the past five years has been enthusiastic and I am very proud to see them pursue writing as a career. My students have gone on to graduate programs ins screenwriting, professional writing, and even turned into best-selling novelists, like Vanessa Booke, who joined me as part of the Written by Veterans program.

Cyxork 7 - a seven-year effort
On the set, producing Cyxork 7

WBV: What is your approach to teaching screenwriting?

AK:  My approach is very much shaped by my experience of producing the comedy "Cyxork 7." I had the unique opportunity to co-write a screenplay and produce the movie based on it.  I wasn't just handing off a script, but had control over its path from scribbles on a notepad, through casting, pre-production, production, post-production, marketing, festival releases, and signing the distribution contract.  It was an eye-opening learning experience.

I am coming from commercial moviemaking, where one has to answer to and lookout for the interests of investors. For that reason, I see filmmaking as a service you provide to your audience, which is your customer.  The goal of screenwriting in particular, is to come up with a story that will captivate people.  I want my students to learn and apply all narrative tricks, devices, characterizations, or structural strategies that will give their audience an exciting experience, no matter what the film is about.

WBV: What if people feel that they are not creative enough to be writers?

Teaching the Screenwriting Course

You cannot learn creativity, because it is already in you. What you have to learn and what I can teach, are ways of letting creativity out.  In that sense, creative writing is no different than learning to drive a car. You can't become a good driver by studying the history of traffic laws.  You've got to get behind the wheel and venture out into traffic. In the beginning it is difficult, but with patience and practice, it becomes easier.  In the end, driving is something your sub-consciousness will do without effort.  That's why in my class students have to "get behind the wheel," take an original idea, develop it into an outline, a treatment, and finally a screenplay, or even a novel. 

Poster for the LA Times Festival of Books

Along the way, while they are wroking on their project, I introduce concepts and narrative strategies that are timed to inspire and stimulate their creative thinking at each stage of their writing process.

Since students submit their work-in-progress once a week and I give feedback, it's almost as if the students and I become writing partners.  And when my students begin to take ownership and become obsessed with their stories--as it always happens--I can pull back and enjoy witnessing their progress.

Jorge Aguayo connects with a reader at the LA Times Festival of Books

The experience of publishing is also a vital part of developing authors. I don't see publishing as "Knighting," or a "Pomp and Circumstance" induction into an elitist society by self-appointed guardians of literature. Instead, publishing is a natural step in the process of creative writing, where you take your novels, poems, or screenplays to your readers and receive payment in exchange for the pleasure and enlightenment your book delivered for them.

Publishing should never be delayed, especially not in the name of "achieving perfection."  As a writer you have to take the plunge and face the consumer of your work. It's not about your first book, but about your fourth, or fifth. If that fifth book is to be successful, you have to have published the ones before and already developed a relationship with your readers.

At Written By Veterans we use modern publishing systems that enable us to eliminate the middle-men.  We no longer need to beg agents and editors for their permission to be printed. It is no longer a question of whether or not publishing our books makes financial sense for them, but whether it makes sense for us!

With our program's imprint "Written By Veterans," we develop our authors by publishing their work, while makeing sure they retain their rights and profits. In addition, we strive to create situations where our members can meet their readers, such as our participation in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

WBV: What are the next steps for the Written by Veterans writing program?

AK: Foremost, we will build on the achievements so far.  Our writing program has only been in existence since July of 2014. In less than a year, we have been able to conduct a 9-week screenwriting course, establish a Writers Group, which meets once a month, and publish three books in paperback.  More books and screenplays are being written right now and we will publish them soon in print and in eBook formats. 

The CSUSB Veterans Success Center also plans to continue to showcase the Written By Veterans program at the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, allowing our writers to meet and introduce their books to a wide audience. In addition, we are looking to make additional public at various events in Southern California. 

With the addition of other volunteers, such as best-selling author Vanessa Booke, we hope to add an additional emphasis on fiction writing, as well as benefit from her experience in successfully marketing of her novels using social media.

Finally, I hope to welcome those affilliated with the military and their direct family members, no matter if they are part of CSUSB, or living in the community, to take advantage of this free program offered by the CSUSB Veterans Success Center. 

Written By Veterans and the CSUSB Veterans Success Center at the LA Times Festival of Books